Monday, June 6, 2016

Yangon, Myanmar: Facts about a Relatively Unknown Nation - May 2016

Nestled alongside India, China and Thailand, sits the enchanting Southeast Asian nation of Myanmar. Formerly known as Burma, the country is now stepping out from its tumultuous history plagued with civil war, occupation and military rule. Known for its towering golden pagodas and devout Buddhist followers, there is more to this formerly closed nation than meets the eye.
  • Burma was renamed Myanmar in 1989, however some western nations, like the U.S., refuse to recognize the change.
  • The Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon is the country's most famous site and a revered Buddhist monument; it was erected more than 2,500 years ago using 22,041 solid bars of gold.
  • Traditional Burmese dance features double-jointed performers who bend wrists, elbows, knees, ankles, fingers and toes to stylized choreography.
  • In Burmese culture, white, or albino, elephants are worshipped. The animals are collected by politicians to bring good luck in elections. Currently eight white elephants are actively involved in blessing the country's affairs.
  • About 5,000 elephants are employed throughout the country in forestry operations to haul logs. Elephants start timber-work at age five and typically retire at age 53.
  • Burmese women and children smear fragrant paste made from tree bark, called thanaka, on their faces to combat the sun.
  • In the mountainous northeastern regions of Myanmar, the local diet consists of insect larvae, ants and grasshoppers.
  • Burmese people don't only drink tea, but eat it as well. Lahpet, or tea-leaf salad, consists of fermented tea leaves packed into bamboo tubes along with a variety of spices and accompaniments.
  • The Myanmar border with Laos and Thailand is often referred to as the "Golden Triangle." It is regarded as lawless badlands overrun with drug lords, arms dealers and insurgent armies, and is the primary poppy crop region for opium production.
  • Myanmar is the second-largest producer of opium in the world after Afghanistan, producing around a fifth of the world's supply.
  • 100 days after the birth of a child, the parents invite family and friends to a naming ceremony where the baby is given a name based on astrological calculations.
  • There are no family surnames in Burmese culture or shared names between children and parents; Burmese women keep their maiden names upon marriage.
  • The term "U" is added to the names of senior figures in Burmese culture to signify honor and respect.
  • Burmese girls mark the end of childhood at age 9 with an ear-piercing ceremony.
  • The Chin people inhabiting the western part of the country are known for their dying tradition of facial tattooing. Worn by women, the tattoos cover the entire face with a blue-green spider's-web pattern. A German photographer showcases the tradition on his site: 

Kyaiktiyo, Myanmar: Our Pilgrimage to Golden Rock Pagoda - May 2016

Precariously perched on the top of rock dangerously close to a mountain's edge, a granite boulder covered in gold hoists a 24-foot-tall pagoda into the sky. Legend has it that the golden rock balances on a single thread of the Buddha's hair. The Golden Rock Pagoda is one of the world's most revered Buddhist sites; it is said that one look at the gravity-defying wonder is enough to inspire any person to become a follower of the faith.

Our pilgrimage to the Golden Rock Pagoda began in Yangon. We were up at dawn waving goodbye to the city as we drove east into the Burmese countryside. Wooden stands with thatch roofs flanked the roadways selling fruits and fish. Past the rice paddy fields and river valleys, we met the mountains upon entering the Mon state.

After nearly four hours of driving we reached the small town of Kyaiktiyo. "Base camp" as they referred to it was a crowded bus depot on the outskirts of town. We were pulled out of our air-conditioned car and thrust into the blanketing 107 degree Fahrenheit heat.

A young Burmese boy motioned for us to climb onto a platform and wait our turn to be loaded into a truck. The back of the truck was open with seven wooden pew-like planks. The noticeably over-heated driver was strict in enforcing six people per plank. After nearly an hour of waiting and organizing in the back of the truck, we held on tight to the metal bar in front of our seat as we began the ascent of Mount Kyaiktiyo with forty of our 'closest' Burmese friends.

The heat was suffocating and the sun scorched our skin. Two children behind us were pulling at my hair and an Indian woman in front was somehow sitting on my knees. We were crammed in so tight we couldn't move. The 45-minute journey to the top of the forested mountain took us up a steep switch back paved road. Tree branches beat the truck. Our only relief was the breeze that sometimes penetrated the pile of cramped pilgrims and the sight of the towering pagoda we would steal every once and again.

Upon reaching the top of the mountain, all of the pilgrims eagerly jumped out of the truck and into the arms of the sweat-drenched locals surrounding the truck peddling everything from straw hats and umbrellas, to snake oil. After pushing through the crowd, we proceeded down a narrow road lined with stores and hotels towards the pagoda.

A few moments later we reached the entrance to the religious area. There we removed our sandals out of respect and left them in a crate. The rest of our journey was to be done barefoot on marble slabs. Our walk turned into a jog as we jumped for the white and gray marble bricks which seemed much cooler than the darker ones. After nearly one mile by foot we finally set our sights on the pagoda.

It was smaller than we had expected but the way in which the boulder appeared to balance on the mountain face was awe-inspiring. The men were permitted to purchase gold leaves to press onto the golden rock. Incense swirled in the air and a line of newly appointed monks marched past us. Hundreds of fellow pilgrims crowded the site many preparing blankets and food to spend the night on the marble grounds. It appeared that from every angle the golden rock glowed a differing hue of gold-yellow-orange as it reflected the light. As the sun set behind the Golden Rock Pagoda it was hard not to be entranced by the beauty of this sacred site.